Activity: Thesis Writing Workshop

Goal: The class will generate its own paper topics and craft a thesis based on one of those topics. This activity is designed to introduce ENGL and ENLT students, especially those who haven’t taken ENWR, to the criteria of a good thesis.

Divide the class into four groups and assign each person in the group a specific duty:

SECRETARY: records suggested paper topics

TIMEKEEPER: makes sure each task is performed within given time limits

ADMINISTRATOR: makes sure the group stays on task, without digressing or jumping ahead

SPOKESPERSON: reports the group’s thesis back to the class

(I usually assign quiet students the role of spokesperson and students who are used to dominating discussion the role of secretary.)

Pass out instructions for the workshop tasks:

Task#1 Brainstorming paper topics. (Ten minutes, no MORE and no LESS)

             Get as many possible paper topics down on the page as you can in ten minutes WITHOUT judging the quality or usefulness of any given topic. A “topic” is not a full-blown argument. It may be a single word, a phrase, or a question. (Here I give them an example relevant to the literature we’re reading.) While you should not at this point be critiquing each other’s contributions, you may ask for clarification if you don’t understand a topic.

Task#2 Converting a topic to a thesis. (7 minutes)

             Each student will pick a topic from the list and use it to generate a “thesis”: a single sentence, in the form of a statement not a question, which makes an argument about the text(s). A good thesis is clear and concise, focused, debatable AND supportable, and significant and/or interesting. See Task #3 for further explanation of these criteria.

Task#3 Evaluating the theses. (5 minutes each)

             Each student will present his or her thesis to the group. The group will answer the following questions:

              1) Is it CLEAR and CONCISE? Is the statement easy to understand? Does it hold together as one coherent argument? An awkwardly constructed statement, or a sentence that sounds like it’s making two arguments at once, usually indicates a problem with the clarity or focus of the argument.

              2) Is it FOCUSED? Can you imagine someone fully addressing this argument in (insert page length of assignment)? If not, you might need to narrow the thesis.

             3) Is it DEBATABLE? Can you imagine a reasonable person disagreeing with this argument? If not, the thesis is probably too obvious. A good thesis addresses a real problem or question a reader might have about the text. (“The sky is blue” is not an argument; it’s a fact.)

             4) Is it SUPPORTABLE? Can you prove the argument with evidence from the text? While the thesis shouldn’t be too obvious, it cannot be so off the wall that no reasonable person would agree with you, at least after seeing your evidence.

             5) Is it SIGNIFICANT and/or INTERESTING? A good thesis addresses an issue that readers care about, not something trivial. Does the argument broaden or deepen the reader’s understanding of the text? Is it worth the evidence it would take to support it? Would ‘so what?’ be a devastating blow to this argument?

Task#4 Perfecting the Thesis. (15 minutes)

            Based on the criteria above, the group should select the best thesis and “massage” it until it meets all the criteria for a good thesis. Now is the time to make suggestions on rewording to improve clarity, narrowing the focus, restyling the concerns to make them BOTH debatable and supportable, etc. If you have more than one thesis that you think already meets the criteria, you might spend this time debating which topic is more interesting and worth pursuing.

Task#5 Each group will present its thesis to the class, and we’ll vote on the best thesis.